If it had been any other team that moved 4 ½ games of the Braves after Atlanta’s dispiriting, abysmal 0-8 West Coast road trip, then maybe the situation would have been as dire as some observers indicated. After all, the Braves had given little reason for hope and shown mostly signs of a team headed in the wrong direction at the worst time, with August here and playoff races starting to heat up.
Ah, but it was the Nationals who had that 4 ½-game lead over the Braves. And as much as some Braves skeptics and Nationals loyalists might not believe it could or would or should continue, the fact remains: The Braves have pretty much owned the Nationals for nearly two calendar years now.
And as bad as the Braves looked during an eight-game losing streak, they were coming home to face the Nationals and the “ace” they continue to make look mediocre. Whatever Stephen Strasburg represents to other teams and Washington fans, to the Braves he’s just not all that.
All that being said, what the Braves did to Strasburg on Friday in a series-opening win was severe even by Braves vs. Strasburg standards. I mean, seven runs and four homers in five innings?
The Nationals made it interesting, for sure, teeing off for one inning against otherwise strong Ervin Santana, then continuing the recent struggles of Braves reliever Anthony Varvaro. But ultimately, on a soggy night at Turner Field, after the pregame tributes and all the homers and the rain delay and everything else, the Braves had yet another win against the Nats, this one by a 7-6 score.
The Nats’ division lead is down to 3 ½ games with 47 games left on the Braves schedule, including eight more games between the two rivals and five of those at Turner Field. Anyone really not believe the Braves, as bad as they’ve been at times this season, can’t reel in the Nats given that scenario?
Consider: The Braves are 25-9 with a 2.20 ERA and 36 home runs in their past 34 games against the Nationals, including 8-3 with a 2.58 ERA and 13 homers this season, the most homers they’ve hit against any team.
The Nationals are 3-8 with a 3.75 ERA and 13 homers allowed in 100 2/3 innings against the Braves, while their next-most losses are against the Phillies (8-5), Miami (6-5) and St. Louis (2-5) and their second-most homers allowed is nine against the Marlins.
Again, there are eight games left between the Braves and Nationals.
Obviously the Braves need to at least win one of the next two and take the series, but really they need to sweep this three-game series given what awaits this next week after the Nats leave town: Seven games against the Dodgers and the A’s, leaders of the NL and AL West divisions.
The Braves must take advantage of head-to-head matchups with the Nats.
Unfortunately for them, they can’t face Strasburg again before the Nats leave town.
Wait, too harsh? Not acknowledging the fact that Strasburg is a good pitcher? Well, look we’ve seen when he faces the Braves, compared to what other teams have encountered.
Strasburg is a career-worst 3-6 with a 4.62 ERA in 15 starts against Atlanta, and 34-23 with a 2.94 ERA in 85 starts against everyone else.
He’s 1-3 with a 6.99 ERA and seven homers allowed in seven starts at Turner Field, his highest ERA at any ballpark where he’s pitched more than once.
Strasburg gave up four homers in five innings Friday, while the most he’s allowed in all games combined at any other road ballpark is four in 25 innings at Citi Field. He allowed four homers against a Braves team that hadn’t hit a homer in its previous six games.
The only other team that’s handed Strasburg more than three losses is Miami, and he’s 7-5 with a 3.94 ERA in 17 starts against the Marlins. Against the other two NL East teams, he’s 4-1 with a 2.14 ERA in 10 starts vs. the Phillies, and 2-1 with a 2.70 ERA in five starts vs. the Mets.
Some Braves fans might’ve been worried facing him last night, given what the Braves had done on their road trip and the fact that Dan Uggla – who was to Strasburg something similar to what Mike Redmond was to Tom Glavine – was no longer a Brave.
So what do the Braves do? They pound Strasburg worse than they’ve ever pounded him before, and that covers quite a few poundings. He was gone after five innings, the eighth time in 15 starts vs. Atlanta that Strasburg lasted 5 1/3 innings or fewer.
He’s had six quality starts out of 15 outings against the Braves.
Freddie Freeman homered against him and is now 10-for-22 (.455) with three homers, nine RBIs, six walks and a .533 OBP and .909 slugging percentage against Strasburg. Both Uptons homered against him, and Tommy La Stella went ‘yard against Strasburg for the rookie’s first major league home run.
There are some things in baseball that can’t be explained. How the Braves keep making Strasburg look so pedestrian probably fits into that category. But like with Redmond vs. Glavine, who’s to say it can’t or won’t continue?
Until he proves otherwise, you gotta think the Braves are in his noggin’. And the same could be said for the Nats, who came to Atlanta knowing full well that the Braves had lost eight in a row and looked pretty pitiful in doing so.
Then they watched them take a 6-0 lead after two innings Friday against the pitcher that many still insist upon calling the Nationals “ace”.
The Braves have had a roller coaster of a season, and their offense has been a real disappointment. But if anyone believes the Braves, with eight games remaining against the Nationals, can’t make up a 3 ½-game deficit, well, then I can only assume they haven’t been watching these teams’ games against each other the past two years.
• Freeman relief: The big first baseman has struggled through far more slumps than usual this season, and a series against the Nationals couldn’t have come at a better time for him. Freeman was 21-for-44 (.477) in 11 games vs. the Nats through Friday, with five doubles, four homers and a .529 OBP and .864 slugging percentage.
And going back over his past 40 games against the Nats, Freeman was 58-for-153 (.379) with 22 extra-base hits (nine homers), 31 RBIs, 29 runs, a .432 OBP and a .634 slugging percentage. The Braves are 25-15 in those games.
Another Nats nemesis is Justin Upton, who in 28 games against the Nationals since joining the Braves had batted .343 (36-for-105) with eight homers, 18 RBIs, .434 OBP and .619 slugging percentage through Friday.
• Friday’s outburst: The Braves had totaled 37 runs and four homers over their previous 13 games (3-10 record) before hitting four homers in their series-opening win against the the Nats.
They had not homered in the previous six games and hadn’t had a multi-homer game since July 12 at Chicago in the penultimate game before the All-Star break, when Chris Johnson homered twice and Mike Minor once in an 11-6 Braves win.
It had been more than seven weeks since the Braves had a multi-homer game at Turner Field, a two-homer game against the Phillies on June 18, when Evan Gattis and Ryan Doumit homered off Roberto Hernandez. That was the day before Gavin Floyd fractured his elbow while pitching in a series opener at Washington.
According to Elias, Friday marked the first time since 1997 that the top four hitters in the Braves order homered in the same game. Back then it was Jeff Blauser, Michael Tucker, Chipper Jones and Fred McGriff.
Also, it was the Braves’ sixth multi-homer game in their past 16 games against the Nationals, including a pair of four-homer games against them at Turner Field. The Braves homered four times in an 8-7 loss to the Nationals on Aug. 17, 2013.
• Varvaro’s rough patch: Braves reliever Anthony Varvaro has allowed three homers in four innings over his past five appearances, after allowing two homers in 40 1/3 innings over his first 44 appearances this season.
The right-hander has an 11.25 ERA, .389 opponents’ average and five earned runs allowed over those past five appearances, after posting a 2.23 ERA, .217 opponents’ average and 10 earned runs allowed in his first 44 appearances.
• Saturday's matchup: It’s Aaron Harang (9-6, 3.41 ERA) vs. Nationals righty Tanner Roark (11-7, 2.94).
Harang hasn’t won since July 10, but hasn’t lost since June 18. He’s 4-0 with a 2.72 ERA in his past eight starts, including no decisions in each of his past four starts. Those four games were all Braves losses including three games in which he pitched at least six innings while allowing two or fewer runs. The Braves scored zero, two and two runs while he was in those games.
The stocky veteran has allowed two or fewer earned runs in nine of 12 home starts this season. He allowed eight earned in five innings against the Phillies on June 18, and has a 2.50 ERA in his other 11 home starts.
He’s going up against a hot pitcher in Roark, who is 8-4 with a 2.52 ERA in his past 12 starts. That includes a June 22 win against the Braves when he allowed four hits and one run in 5 1/3 innings. Roark has pitched at least six innings in each of his seven starts since then, including seven innings five times in that span.
Roark is 2-0 with a 2.35 ERA and .177 opponents’ average in five games (three starts) against the Braves, all in the past two seasons. Freeman is 3-for-9 against him, B.J. Upton is 2-for-8, Justin Upton is 2-for-9 with four strikeouts, and Ramiro Pena (1-for-2) has the only homer against him among current Braves. For those who might be wondering, Emilio Bonifacio is 0-for-2 against Roark.
Jason Heyward hit .408 (31-for-76) in his past 21 games through Friday with eight extra-base hits, 11 RBIs, .471 OBP, .553 slugging percentage. And in 55 games since the beginning of June, he had a .298 average, .382 OBP and .434 slugging percentage with 18 extra-base hits (four homers), 27 RBIs, 32 runs, 25 walks, 30 strikeouts….
Tommy La Stella’s past 21 games through Friday: .300 (24-for-80) with six doubles, one homer, 12 RBIs, .364 OBP, .413 slugging percentage. He has six multi-hit games in that span….
Neither Bryce Harper nor Jayson Werth had driven in a run against the Braves this season through Friday, Harper in six games and Werth in 10. Werth is 6-for-34 (.176) with one double, four walks and 17 strikeouts against the Braves.
Let's close with something appropriate on this soggy weekend, this one from the great John Hiatt.
“FEELS LIKE RAIN” by John Hiatt
And in the sticky heat I feel ya' open up to me
Love comes out of nowhere baby, like a hurricane
And it feels like rain
Underneath the stars lying next to you
Wondering who you are baby
How do you do?
When the clouds blow in across the moon
And the wind howls out your name
Feels like rain
We'll never make that bridge tonight
Across lake Ponchartrain
Feels like rain
Batten down the hatches
But keep your heart out on your sleeve
A little bit of stormy weather, that's no cause for us to leave
Just stay here baby, in my arms
Let it wash away the pain
Feels like rain